The Best Cars for Your Money

Both American and foreign autos made the grade in a study on car value.

April 4, 2009— -- Amid the dire news for America's car companies comes a ray of light for beleaguered General Motors. An annual value study recently released by Vincentric, an auto-industry analysis firm in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., gives 10 GM models top ratings. Only one model from fellow-sufferer Chrysler, the Jeep Compass, made the cut. Ford, which has yet to require government funding to help maintain its viability, had three models that earned top billing.

Among GM's winners are several models coming to define the Detroit-based company: hybrids and trucks. GM's segment toppers include the Chevrolet Tahoe and Chevrolet Malibu hybrids and the GMC Sierra 3500, Chevrolet Silverado 1500 and Chevrolet Silverado 2500 pickups.

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The study, titled the "Best Value in America" report, evaluates the cost of owning specific models by accounting for depreciation, fuel, insurance, opportunity costs, financing, maintenance, taxes and state fees and repairs.

Each car was evaluated in every state and in Washington, D.C. The cars studied racked up annual mileages of 10,000, 15,000 and 20,000. Vincentric used varied insurance profiles (new drivers, less experienced drivers and experienced drivers) to determine the value for each vehicle.

Vincentric identified superior value by measuring which vehicles had the lowest ownership costs given their market segment and price.

To some extent, the Vincentric ratings reflect American automakers' strengths and weaknesses, says David Wurster, who leads product development and industry analysis for Vincentric. GM will pull through its current dire straits, he predicts. Chrysler may not.

"Hopefully what this means now is [GM will] get two months to refinish this plan for reorganizing, and they'll be in a position to be viable going forward," speculates Wurster. "I think [the government] wants Chrysler to do a deal and to kind of go away," he adds.

GM joined high-value stalwarts BMW and Toyota in this year's highest Vincentric ratings. The top-rated models range from the $22,600 MINI Cooper, rated best for a subcompact car, to Toyota's $64,755 Land Cruiser, rated the best of the large premium SUVs. Toyota's 4Runner, Camry, Prius, Tacoma and Venza each win their own segments, as does BMW's M3, X6, 7-Series and 5-Series Sedan and Wagon.

Toyota and BMW both deliver the products they promise, says Jez Frampton, the CEO of Interbrand, an international consulting firm.

"Brands are promises made between companies and markets, and those promises are either fulfilled or they aren't," Frampton says. "BMW and Mercedes won't let us down. They'll show us the way for premium motoring."

Though Frampton includes Mercedez-Benz on his short list of best brands, the German automaker is conspicuously absent from the best value report. Other premium no-shows include Audi and Lexus.

"That's very notable--particularly Lexus in my viewpoint, because they had historically done pretty well," says Wurster. "But I think it's more notable that BMW was the winner in many of those categories. ... It was excellent performance from their standpoint."

Other highlights in the report are the Volkswagen Routan van and Tiguan crossover. Each has high residual values that enhance the overall value, especially the Tiguan in the growing but precarious crossover market.

The value of any vehicle relies in part on gas prices, and that affects crossovers more than most. They offer good value to consumers who would otherwise drive a large SUV, but their car-like handling with extra cargo space doesn't offer the best value for everyone.

"Smaller cars and midsize vans have made a rebound in the economy, so bigger vehicles generally are taking a hit, and I think that's because people are asking themselves, 'What do I really need?'" says Karl Brauer, the editor in chief at, a car research Web site.